This year’s flu season has been declared an "epidemic:" with 41 states reporting widespread and severe outbreaks of flu this season, researchers are wondering why less than half of the American population has gotten a flu shot. Due to the way the flu virus mutates, this year’s vaccine is only 62% effective, but that’s better than nothing!
Despite widespread knowledge that a vaccine is the best way to reduce the chances of catching and spreading the flu, even three of the four main anchors on a popular morning TV show recently admitted they had not gotten a flu shot (until they did so live on the air).
Using an online computer game that simulates the spread of an infectious disease among its players, researchers learned more about what motivates people to protect themselves from infection–from the flu to whooping cough–and what motivates them NOT to.
Economist Fred Chen says, "Some people are very risk tolerant and some are super risk averse. Our research shows that to prevent an epidemic, there is a need to tailor a menu of options for different kinds of people."
The multiplayer game simulates an epidemic among the players over several weeks. At the beginning of each day of the game, healthy players have the option to choose, at a cost, a protective action that reduces the likelihood of getting infected.
Economist Amanda Griffith says, ‘We can’t do in real life what we can do in the game.We can’t give some people treatment and others not. The game gave us a way to conduct an experiment on behavior that could never be done in real life."
Chen says, "Players were rolling the dice to see if they could stay healthy without paying the costs of protection. But even those players who were more inclined to take risks chose to self-protect the more often they got sick.
"The results can be applied to many illnesses from the common cold to sexually transmitted diseases, where there are costs, financial or otherwise, to taking a preventative measure. For example, in the face of an outbreak of flu, preventative costs might include a fear of negative side effects from taking a vaccination, a fear of needles, lost pay for time away from work, the gas cost of driving to a flu shot center and the time spent waiting in line for a vaccination as well as, for some, the cost of the vaccination itself."
The study shows that to reduce disease prevalence, policies that reduce the cost of self-protection can be helpful, such as offering paid time off for employees who get flu shots or providing free flu shots onsite.
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